Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

040: A black childhood in Wigan, 1906-1920

Born in Wigan, Lancashire on 10 November 1906, Olive Harleston was the daughter of Eloise Harleston and Daniel J. Jenkins of Charleston, South Carolina. Miss Harleston was well-connected (see Edward Ball, The Sweet Hell Inside. A Family History. New York: William Morrow, 2001). She worked as the secretary of the black orphanage founded by Revd Jenkins in 1891. Married, with several children (Edmund, 1894-1926, was to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London for seven years – see Jeffrey Green, Edmund Thornton Jenkins. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), Parson Jenkins took his pregnant secretary to England, with three small girls who were to sing to gather funds for the orphan home. The baby was left with Wigan midwife Alice Layland at 20 Lower St Stephens Street, and registered as Olive Harleston. She left for America in August 1920. She returned for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley (1924-1925) but it was not for almost sixty years before her next visit “home”.

In August 1983 Olive flew to London and we went to Wigan where she stayed with an old school friend Laura who arranged a reunion with other 76-year old ladies. Before we drove to Lancashire Olive was interviewed. The resulting “Beef Pie with a Suet Crust” was published in New Community (London) Vol 9 No 3 Spring 1984, pp 291-298.

Her first recollection was at the age of three or four swinging on the gate in a dress made for her by Nurse Layland’s sister Mary. She recalled visiting Ashton in Makerfield to see a third “aunt” Annie. She told of a boy at school who had called her “blackie”, how the teacher dealt with it, and that it was the only time her colour was mentioned. They went to Southport, Blackpool, the Isle of Man and London: “I have never – in my whole life in England – had anything that made me feel any different as far as colour was concerned, except that little incident in school one day”.

She was not permitted to participate in a school play “because you are heathens – you are Unitarians and you are heathens”. Alice Layland told her that her parents were Americans, which upset her mother when she visited Olive in July 1914. Sent to school in Philadelphia, Olive had to keep telling her teacher that she had done that work already. Her English accent led to the American children making fun of her, so she reduced her comments to “Ah, ha”, “yes” and “no” for a year. Olive had started piano lessons in Wigan, too.

Years later I met Olive’s daughter Barbara, who told me that when the Queen of England visited New York her mother pulled two union jacks from her handbag for them to wave. And recalled that her mother had said that one boy in Wigan thought her skin colour was so nice that he insisted on drinking chocolate drinks (possibly Ovaltine?) so his skin would change colour.

When teaching and entertaining children Olive would sometime sing “If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do, and if you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you”, saying that children take these things in their stride. She retained a slight Lancashire accent.